To clocks, bad ads and good ads are identical.

In Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This! Luke Sullivan reminds us that it takes just as long to make a bad commercial as it does to make a good commercial. Whether it’s a brilliant, shining idea or a dripping wad of hair and toe jam, you’re still going to have to do storyboards for it. And present it to the client. And walk through a director through the idea. And sit through a pre-pro. And sit in video village. And edit. And revision after revision after revision.

So don’t cut corners on the idea. Make the idea solid. Because even if the client strips away your very best shots, and makes you change the music you love, and doesn’t want to pay $1 million for the celebrity voiceover, you’ll still have a strong idea.

If you spent the time to uncover it.

Know What You Need To Know

If you’re doing an ad – even a spec ad for your student portfolio – know what you’re advertising.

If you’re advertising gum, go buy a pack and chew it. Chew it every day for a week.

If you’re doing an ad for a car, go to the dealership and sit in it. Take it for a test drive.

If you’re doing an ad for insurance, call them up and pretend like you’re interested in buying some. You’ll get a bunch of junk mail and follow-up phone calls. But you’ll probably have a better ad in the end.

A lot of times, students (and even professionals) rely on the internet for research. We watch videos. We read articles. We sit through planners’ consumer insights presentations. We think we’re too busy for hands-on experience.

We’re not.

Get to know your product. Use it. Live with it. See what you love and what you hate about it.

You can do a good ad without ever touching your product.

But without it, it’s very difficult to do a great one.

"Inflatable Trans Ams and Stained Glass Backboards" or "Have An Idea That Forces You To Learn Something New"

I love to see side projects in someone’s portfolio. Granted, they need to be interesting and well-done too. Bad poetry doesn’t score many points. But good side projects show what you’re capable of with no restraints. How far you’ll go to make something cool. How big of an itch you have to just create something new in the world.

About six months ago, we hired this guy. His name is Guy. He’s a great advertising creative, but beyond that he has a whole life as an artist. He has two portfolios, one for advertising and one for his art. Here’s his art portfolio. For the inflatable Trans Am idea, he had no idea how to make inflatables. He just had the idea, then he started calling people to figure out how to make it happen. The end result is pretty bad-ass.

Guy Overfelt, untitled
(his 1977 Smokey and The Bandit Trans AM as an inflatable) 1999, 2009
inflatable nylon and electric blower
54H X 204L X 84W inches

Another friend of mine recently started a side project (obsession) that required him to learn a new craft of his own. His name is Victor Solomon. I know him because he used to do some freelance editing and the occasional shooting for us. He had an idea to do basketball backboards made out of stained glass. A comment on the deification of athletes, the spiritual nature of sport, something like that.

When he had this idea, he knew absolutely nothing about stained glass other than that he liked how it looked. So he did some research and did an apprenticeship with some master stained glass dudes down in San Jose. It takes him around 100 hours to make a backboard, but man are these things cool. And as he’s just starting out, his craft is only going to get better.

See more of his backboards at literallyballin.com.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. The only ideas that matter are the ones you care about enough to actually bring into the world. Pick the hard ones–the ones that you don’t know how to make. Let your passion to see it realized be your fuel. Make yourself learn something. In the end, you’ll have created something in the world and in yourself.

How to Write for Television (When You Have Never Written for Television)

If you want to concept TV commercials, you’ve got to start with premises. Do not write scripts. Let me explain…

Forever ago, I did a summer internship at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. I was in between semesters at the VCU Adcenter (before it was the Brandcenter), and I was excited not only to be at an agency that had been all over the award annuals, but to be partnered with a classmate of mine who was a fantastic art director. It was going to be a very good summer.

That first week, we were given a chance to write TV commercials for Chili’s. Yes, the Chili’s of Baby Back Rib fame. Our first year in school, we had worked on lots of print campaigns, but had never worked on TV. (This is before digital was even a thing. Web banners weren’t even a thing. Like I said, this was forever ago.)

So we sat down and spent days concepting. We came up with a story about an Amish boy. We had another one about a kung fu master and his disciples. We had one shot from the point of view of a bird. And we crafted each script in detail. We argued over dialogue for hours. I thought the Amish boy should say, “Yea, verily,” because it sounded funny and biblical. My art director thought he should say, “Even so, mother,” because it made more sense. This went on for days.

Finally, we brought five or six scripts in to our creative director. Who killed them all. Welcome to advertising.

So we came up with five or six more scripts. And we agonized over dialogue and descriptions. Again, we showed them to our creative director. Nothing.

We were feeling disappointed and a little bit of pressure because we knew that the interns VCU sent to this agency the year before had actually produced a commercial for Pennzoil. That’s insane. Summer interns producing a TV commercial? But it happened. And we wanted it to happen for us, too.

But it never did. We had a fun summer. But we produced nothing. (To be fair, the idea that interns would produce anything other than spec work is a little unrealistic. But we didn’t know that.)

On the last day of our internship, our creative director gave us an evaluation. And we were shocked to hear that it wasn’t so hot. He said we came in with five or six scripts a week. According to him, the team that had produced the Pennzoil spot last year came in with 100 ideas the day after they were briefed. Maybe 100 was an exaggeration. But it was certainly more than five.

It took me the better part of my career to learn that there is a difference between writing premises and writing scripts.

A premise is a short two to three sentence blurb about what the spot’s about.

A script is a crafted document that tells you exactly what happens in the commercial.

A premise is loose.

A script is tight.

You can write 100 premises in a day.

It might take you an entire afternoon to write a decent script.

A premise is something you jot down as a potential idea.

A script is an idea you begin to craft.

So if you have the chance to write TV scripts. Don’t just start writing TV scripts. That’s like crafting the body copy for a marker comp. Start with a premise. And then come up with another. And another. And another.

David Oakley’s Why Is Your Name Upside Down?

We have a list of books we recommend over there —-> on the right side of the page. Lots of stuff that might inspire you or make you a better creative. Here’s one that might do both, and will get you excited to be in an industry as fun as ours. Why Is Your Name Upside Down? Stories from a Life in Advertising by David Oakley
Oakley is the president and creative director at BooneOakley, a small independent advertising agency in Charlotte, NC. It’s a really good shop with nice, talented folks. Full disclosure here—I’ve met David and many of the people there, so I’m probably a little biased. Even so, I laughed much harder at this book than I thought I would. After 15 years in the business, sometimes reading books about the industry feels like, well, work. This one feels more like just grabbing a beer with a dude who tells really good stories.
BooneOakley opened with a ballsy, attention-grabbing stunt. During the 2000 presidential race, they ran a billboard that said “Gore 2000.” But what it showed was a photo of George W. Bush. Calls from the media started immediately. All the big names wanted to know who had screwed the pooch so badly. CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX. Oakley even received a call from the Vice Chairman of the Republican Party. Only after a few nervous days of incredible publicity did they reveal the punch line: the board was for 123hire.com, with the copy: “Today’s job opening: proofreader.” A really simple prank that turned a local billboard into national media coverage.
bush1
That is the M.O. of Oakley—he likes to take risks, make his clients famous and have fun doing it. Some of the stories here are how some of BooneOakley’s best, most over-the-top ideas came to be. Some are stories from the trenches of running a small agency in a small market. And some are personal stories from David, how he got into the business, how he met his wife (who also works with him), a few other random but always entertaining stories from his past. If you were to cut a trailer for a movie version of this book, you’d see a giant muffin fall on a car, a professional golfer tee off on a biscuit, a Silence of the Lambs basement moment as Oakley tries to buy a ping pong table for the office on the cheap, a client fired via tweet (don’t we all wish sometimes), a condom on a dog, a pole dancer, a live earthworm eaten by a human, some terrible golf, Celine Dion, Roseanne Cash, a kidney stone passed and what is certainly the only sex doll thrown from a rooftop during a new business pitch. And that would just be the 30-second cut of the trailer.
You don’t have to be in advertising to enjoy these stories. But if you are, you might actually learn something while you’re laughing your butt off. There’s a method to Oakley’s madness, and he drops some important lessons along the way. Even his craziest stories have morals to them. Well, most of them do. And you’ll be treated to some delightful writing, such as this: “Our moods were swinging like a pair of donkey balls.” (Surprising, visual, simple—everything a good simile requires.)
The stories are so random and improbable that you know they’re true. Advertising is random and improbable. I’ve had many moments in my career where I’ve stopped to look around and wondered, “How the hell did I get here?” I could totally relate. And what comes through more than anything is that Oakley is a guy who loves what he does. He loves the people around him, and he’s built an agency, a body of work and now a book that shows that advertising can be a blast. It should be, if you’re doing it right. And he shows that, despite the rumors, there are some really good people in this industry.